MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:
You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, HOST:
It's been a big week for climate change. President Biden is gathering with world leaders to talk about how to prevent its most catastrophic effects. And two of NPR's very own climate reporters are here to talk about how that might work. Lauren Sommer. Hi, Lauren.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi.
CHATTERJEE: And Rebecca Hersher.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hey there.
CHATTERJEE: Hello. Now, climate change wasn't really a priority in the last four years of the Trump administration, so what's the main goal of this White House climate summit?
HERSHER: This is basically America's way of saying, we're back. Climate is a priority again. And the U.S. wants the rest of the world to know that and to establish itself as a trustworthy partner for other countries, if it can.
SOMMER: Yeah. And as part of renewing those vows...
SOMMER: ...So to speak, President Biden announced a really important goal when he kicked off the summit.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half - in half - by the end of this decade. That's where we're headed as a nation.
SOMMER: Yeah. Specifically, the U.S. is promising to cut emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BIDEN: These steps will set America on a path of net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050.
CHATTERJEE: OK. So, now, I used to be an environment reporter many years ago.
CHATTERJEE: This is an ambitious goal, guys. How hard is this going to be?
SOMMER: It's going to be pretty tough. It'll mean moving faster with clean energy and other solutions, and - you know, faster than the country has ever done. And even then, it still might not be fast enough to do what the science is telling us is needed.
CHATTERJEE: So today on the show, America is back in the climate game, making big promises. What will it take to achieve those goals, and what will the country look like in 2030 if we get there? I'm Rhitu Chatterjee.
SOMMER: I'm Lauren Sommer.
HERSHER: And I'm Rebecca Hersher. And this is SHORT WAVE from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHATTERJEE: So the White House is holding a two-day climate summit. It's a big production. There are 40 heads of state invited. Rebecca, why is the summit happening now?
HERSHER: Well, that goes back to the previous administration, actually. So remember, almost four years ago, it was early in the Trump administration...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: The United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.
CHATTERJEE: Oh, I remember this, despite all the things that have happened in the last four years.
CHATTERJEE: And the Trump administration followed through, right? The U.S. did officially withdraw from the Paris agreement.
HERSHER: Yeah. And the federal government basically stopped trying to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. And on President Biden's first day in office, he filed the paperwork to rejoin the agreement. He also announced this summit on Earth Day - or it started on Earth Day yesterday. Happy Earth Day, by the way.
CHATTERJEE: Happy Earth Day.
HERSHER: The goal of the summit is to reestablish the U.S. as a serious player in international climate diplomacy and to reestablish trust. You know, in 2015, under President Obama, the U.S. promised to cut its emissions by 25%-ish. And then...
HERSHER: ...President Trump took office and almost immediately announced that the U.S. was leaving the Paris agreement instead of following through. So the summit today and yesterday is an opportunity to say sorry, and we promise we're going to do better.
CHATTERJEE: And, Rebecca, is that why the U.S. is making this big, new promise to reduce American greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030?
HERSHER: Exactly. And you can almost think of this as renewing vows in marriage, like Lauren said. It's like the U.S....
CHATTERJEE: I love that analogy.
HERSHER: Yes. It's like the U.S. cheated on other countries, and now it's coming back and saying...
CHATTERJEE: (Laughter) Right.
HERSHER: ...I know you have a lot of reasons not to trust us, but we're going to try to reassure you with these new promises, we are committed. Also, the Paris agreement requires this, so every country is supposed to submit new goals ahead of the next international climate negotiations that are happening in the fall. And so this is America's official submission.
CHATTERJEE: And, Lauren, how does this promise stack up against other countries?
SOMMER: It's up there. It's pretty strong. The European Union promised something similar, at least a 55% cut in emissions by 2030, you know, as compared to 1990 levels. The U.K. has the most ambitious. You know, this week they promised a 78% cut...
SOMMER: ...In emissions by 2035. China is doing something different. Its government promised that emissions would peak before 2030, so they would stop growing. And that kind of represents a shift away from fossil fuels because China's economy is growing incredibly fast.
SOMMER: But there's this big tension in the sense that, you know, if you look at all the emissions that have been out there since the industrial revolution, you know...
SOMMER: ...The U.S. is the most responsible. We've emitted the most thus far.
CHATTERJEE: So it sounds like a number of Western countries are shooting for around a 50% percent reduction in emissions. So what will these cuts achieve in terms of stopping or slowing down climate change?
SOMMER: Yeah, there's a lot of numbers here, right? But there is a rationale behind them. And it's based on what the scientific studies are saying needs to happen to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. That's something I talked to Nate Hultman of the University of Maryland about.
NATE HULTMAN: It will mean rapid change, and that's actually what we want. We know that, you know, from the science, that we've heard from the scientific community to keep global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. The Earth as a whole - you know, our global economy has to undertake a rapid transition of our economy between now and roughly mid-century, which essentially eliminates all greenhouse gas emissions.
CHATTERJEE: Help make a sense of those numbers, Lauren.
SOMMER: So that 1.5 degrees Celsius is important because that's what scientists say, you know, we'll all be in much better shape if we can limit warming to that number because as the Earth gets hotter beyond that, the worse the impacts will get. You know, sea levels will rise even higher, storms get more intense, wildfires do, too.
CHATTERJEE: We're already seeing some of those effects a lot these past few years.
SOMMER: For sure. Yeah. And the long-term goal to kind of keep an eye on is that we need to get to net zero emissions by 2050. And a 50% goal kind of puts the U.S. roughly on the path to get there.
CHATTERJEE: OK, so with those nice impacts in mind, can the U.S. actually deliver on this goal?
SOMMER: Yeah, it's a really good question because we're talking about change that will happen in less - you know, basically nine years, right?
CHATTERJEE: Yeah, less than a decade.
SOMMER: I spoke to a number of researchers who have been trying to figure this out, you know, how can you cut emissions the fastest? So let's pretend it's 2030, and I'll take you on a tour of what the country might look like.
CHATTERJEE: I'm ready.
SOMMER: OK. So the first change maybe isn't one you'd notice at home necessarily because, you know, your lights would still turn on, but the electricity that powers those lights would come from a very different mix of sources. So more would come from renewables like wind and solar power.
CHATTERJEE: I mean, that's already happening around the country, right? I'm seeing it in my own neighborhood here in Washington, D.C. More neighbors and friends now have solar or are in the process of getting it. So is this part already on track then?
SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, solar - the cost of it has come way down. In some parts of the country, it's the cheapest option. And, you know, Danielle Arostegui of the Environmental Defense Fund has kind of looked at some of these trends, and she says that's what the Biden administration wants to build on.
DANIELLE AROSTEGUI: We saw record amounts in 2020, even despite the effects of the pandemic. So, you know, we're looking at an acceleration of trends that are in place, not, like, a wholesale, new process that doesn't have any kind of basis in what's going on already.
SOMMER: There is a flip side of that, that fossil fuels would shrink a lot. And the biggest change would probably be for coal power. You know, to hit that 50% target, it would have to shrink to just a few percentage points, you know, if not disappear completely.
CHATTERJEE: But that's a huge issue for those communities that depend on the coal jobs, right?
SOMMER: Yeah, definitely. And it's where the Biden administration is going to see a lot of political pushback because coal is already declining just because of economics.
SOMMER: You know, renewable energy and natural gas are cheaper, so coal plants are closing, and they're being run less often.
CHATTERJEE: OK, so that's electricity, but I know another big source of emissions are cars. What will the roads look like in 2030 if we hit this goal, Lauren?
SOMMER: It wouldn't be completely different, actually. What would be different is the car dealerships. You know, the estimates are that maybe almost all of new cars sold then, from one half to maybe all of them, would need to be electric or zero-emission cars. That's not too far off from what some automakers are already planning. Both GM and Volvo say they're going all-electric. But if - you know, if you're driving around on the road, you'll still see gas-powered cars because we drive cars a long time, you know, a decade or more. So it'll take a while to see that change.
CHATTERJEE: Right, cars last a long time. All right. So it sounds like cars and electric power have may move deliberately, but not super quickly. So how does the U.S. hit that emission goal?
SOMMER: Yeah, this is something where you need all aspects, all sectors of the economy to start chipping in. You know, our buildings would have to be more energy efficient.
SOMMER: Maybe you wouldn't use natural gas in your stove anymore. You'd have to plant forests and protect land because that's a good way to soak up carbon. And some emission sources are going to be really tough, like from industry, things like cement and steel and chemicals, you know? That's going to take a lot longer.
CHATTERJEE: All right, so some things will take longer to get clean. But I don't know. I want to be optimistic. What if this all really went well, and emissions really dropped by half in the next decade and then kept dropping? Rebecca, what would that mean for the Earth?
HERSHER: Great question. What would it mean for the Earth? It would make a huge difference by the end of the century, at least. So global warming would slow down a lot. Eventually, if other countries made similar cuts and emissions stayed low, the global warming that we are already living with would reverse, and the climate would be more like it was in the mid-19th century. But that would take a long time, like, at least a century.
CHATTERJEE: And that's, of course, because carbon dioxide sticks around in the atmosphere for a very, very long time, right?
HERSHER: Yeah. Now you're showing your former environmental reporter stripes.
CHATTERJEE: (Laughter) Right.
HERSHER: So carbon dioxide can hang out for a thousand years or more trapping heat. And it's - that's just because it's a very stable gas. It doesn't like playing with others. So once it's up in the atmosphere, it just hangs out until it's reabsorbed by something down on earth, like an ocean or a tree or a rock.
And the other major greenhouse gas, methane - it's a funny one. So it's extremely good at trapping heat, much better than CO2, but it's way less stable, so it breaks down after only about 10 years. But here is the wild caveat - when it breaks down, methane can turn into CO2.
CHATTERJEE: Right, so more CO2. So even if humans were to rapidly reduce new greenhouse gas emissions, it would still take a while for the gases that are already heating the Earth to go away.
HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. And I talked to a climate scientist at UC Berkeley about this. His name is Solomon Hsiang (ph).
SOLOMON HSIANG: It's kind of like you're driving a giant train. It's very heavy. You slam on the brakes. The train keeps going for a while. So there is some amount of heating that we would continue to experience.
CHATTERJEE: Right. Because the train takes awhile to stop.
HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. And the train in this metaphor is headed for a cliff...
CHATTERJEE: A cliff.
HERSHER: ...The cliff of climate change impacts, like rising seas or more severe heat waves and floods and droughts. And the people in the front of the train, just to stick with this metaphor - they are the ones who are most vulnerable to those things. Around the world, the people in the front of the train are more likely to be poor people, people whose livelihoods are tied to the land as well, like farmers or people who fish and hunt and people who work outside.
HSIANG: Those are the people that actually get sent off the cliff, right? They're the ones who really are harmed because we didn't stop the train fast enough. It doesn't mean everyone goes off the cliff, but it does mean, you know, that those people on the front lines - they're going to continue to bear the brunt of climate change for the next several decades.
CHATTERJEE: So what can we as a society do to help the people in the front of the train?
SOMMER: Basically, make sure they're as prepared as they can be, you know, for a hotter Earth, and that's because of this lag in the atmosphere. We need to make sure that buildings can withstand more extreme weather and that people are safe during heat waves and storms and wildfires. But to be clear, cutting emissions as much as possible, as quickly as possible, is absolutely crucial. It will make the world a lot safer, especially, you know, in a few decades, when today's kindergartners are adults because, you know, every little bit helps.
CHATTERJEE: Every little bit helps. And that's the perfect, optimistic note for this to end on. Thank you both, Rebecca and Lauren.
CHATTERJEE: This episode was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Viet Le and Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. I'm Rhitu Chatterjee. You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.